What role does the Mediterranean diet play in dementia care? If you’re a family caregiver, you may be asking this question after seeing recent news stories about this diet and its link to cognitive decline. But family caregivers aren’t the only ones asking about the link between the Mediterranean diet, Alzheimer’s, and other forms of dementia. It’s also a hot topic of discussion among dementia care professionals.
Health professionals have been recommending the Mediterranean diet for decades. The diet is primarily made up of plant-based foods, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seeds, and nuts. It contains a heavy intake of olive oil and a moderate intake of fish and poultry. It also limits the intake of red meat, salt, added sugars, and unhealthy fats.
In the past, the diet was most often recommended for heart health. But a growing body of research is revealing that the Mediterranean diet also plays a big role in brain health.
Studies have found that this diet significantly slows cognitive decline in the elderly and reduces the risk that seniors suffer severe cognitive impairment. At least one study has shown that seniors’ brains shrink about half as fast when they follow the diet. And a 2015 study concluded that seniors who follow a Mediterranean-style diet strictly could lower their risk of Alzheimer’s by 53%.
Can the Mediterranean Diet Slow Dementia?
If the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, can it also slow the progress of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia? That’s a trickier question. To date, almost all of the research in this field has been performed on seniors without dementia. Right now, that means there’s no direct evidence that the Mediterranean diet can slow the progress of Alzheimer’s and/or other dementias.
However, there is circumstantial evidence that a Mediterranean-style diet helps fight the progression of some dementias. Studies have found that healthy lifestyle changes, like getting more exercise, can slow down the progress of Alzheimer’s. Other studies have used diets similar to the Mediterranean diet as part of wider dementia care treatment programs, often with some success.
This includes a 2016 joint study by the Buck Institute and UCLA. Though small, this study is noteworthy for being the first case where scientists reversed Alzheimer’s-related memory loss. That study used a 36-point treatment approach, which included dietary changes. Subjects limited their intake of salt, red meat, and processed food, and increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and seafood. However, the small sample size and 36-point approach made it impossible for researchers to say how important these dietary changes were to the study’s final results.
Ultimately, we’ll only find out if the Mediterranean diet can slow dementia through further research. But if you’re the caregiver for someone with dementia, there’s no downside to introducing them to the Mediterranean diet. Seniors who follow this diet lead longer, healthier lives, with lower risk of stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. Family caregivers and professional dementia care providers are encouraged to cook meals following the diet to improve the health and well-being of seniors with dementia.
Dementia Prevention in Seniors & Caregivers
There’s another big reason why family caregivers should learn more about the Mediterranean diet: lowering their own risk of dementia. Family history of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or vascular dementia is one of the core risk factors that someone will develop dementia later in life. If your mom or dad has one of these forms of dementia, you will want to do all that you can to maintain your own cognitive health. A Mediterranean diet could decrease your risk of developing the disease, or could significantly delay its onset. You will also enjoy all of the other health benefits offered by the diet, an important part of self-care as a family caregiver.
The diet is also a key tool for family caregivers of seniors without dementia. After all, researchers are confident that the diet has cognitive health benefits for seniors who have not already developed a cognitive disorder. Switching your loved one to a Mediterranean diet can improve their overall health, help them retain their quickness and memory into their later years, and reduce their risk of developing a cognitive disorder.